[10 January 2010]
“To me the great hope is that now with these little 8mm video recorders and stuff people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. And, you know, suddenly one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father’s little camcorder and for once this whole professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever and it will become an art form.” - Francis Ford Coppola, 1991
“We used to dream, now we worry about dying.” - Japandroids, 2009
The above quote from Francis Ford Coppola is a chestnut that gets thrown around now and again in the popular media, when another journalist discovers it for the first time. If you have enough money to go to film school you’ll hear it within the first few days of class, and it gets trotted out once in a while as an example of how much of an asshole Francis Ford Coppola is (try Googling the phrase “fat girl in Ohio”).
The years have proven Coppola wrong. No fledgling auteur has stepped up and created the timeless masterpiece on a small video camera that he predicted. However, what did occur was a silent revolution in documentary filmmaking centered around the advent of cheap, portable digital video cameras and relatively simple and inexpensive video editing programs for personal computers. The downside of this was probably reality television. However, the upside was that it allowed people who were not professional filmmakers, amateurs at best, to document stories that would not have been told otherwise. In doing, many have achieved a level of intimacy that documentarians Albert and David Maysles would envy.
A Finished Life: The Goodbye & No Regrets Tour belongs in this category of intimate, if poorly executed, documentaries shot entirely handheld on digital video. The filmmakers, Barbara Green and Michelle Boyaner, would probably disagree, but their bios from the film’s website belie the fact that neither of them are professional filmmakers and A Finished Life shows that their camera, editing and storytelling work leave much to be desired. Far from being a criticism, this is merely background to a very complicated film which while ultimately leaving more questions than answers, goes far in achieving the simplest definition of documentary film: providing insight into the remote reaches of the human experience.
Gregg Gour is the subject of A Finished Life. It’s 2006 and he’s in his late 40s. He’s made the decision to stop taking the AIDS drugs that have been keeping him alive for the last 25 years. He acknowledges that this will either result in him dying quickly via pneumonia or a similar illness, or he will end his own life. Doctors give him six months to live, but like most of Gregg’s ordeal with HIV/AIDS, he has beaten the odds. Consequently, and probably unintentionally, from the start the film sets up the awkward tension of, “is he going to kill himself or not?” which fittingly isn’t answered until the final sequence.
Much of this is due to Gour looking to be the picture of health at the beginning of the film. The viewer’s initial reaction is much the same as virtually every single one of the dozens of friends, family and acquaintances of Gour’s that were interviewed. “But Gregg, you look good, you look better than I do,” his friend Paul Putrino says at one point, and we feel this way too, until a jittery hand and an out of place cough reveals that Gour’s condition is much worse than his good attitude and seemingly healthy physique would otherwise imply.
Much more than the politics and legalities that rage around assisted suicide, A Finished Life is fascinating for the reason that we are rarely this close to a death that has not been sensationalized. For Gour to be so forthright in his belief that killing himself is the right thing to do—and following through with it—is compelling by itself. However, what is more compelling, and where an authentic emotional connection with this film is made, is being privy to the explicit conversations that he and his family have about death.
The conversations are remarkable while the people having them are mundane. Gour worked in an accounts receivable department. His family members seem about as normal as the people in front of you at the grocery story checkout line. There is nothing out of the ordinary here except death is being discussed freely and openly, and it’s a surprising catharsis to hear it.
Taking the film on its own merit as a low-budget, quasi-amateur work, the only serious flaw that the filmmakers can be faulted for at first glance may seem like an uncaring criticism, but it effectively derails much of the final impact of the film. Namely, for legal reasons or otherwise, they chose not film the actual suicide. It’s difficult to argue that Americans don’t live in a state of denial when it comes to death. From banned photos of dead soldiers to putting make-up and a wig on Mom so she looks like she’s “just sleeping” at the funeral, there is a peculiarly American way of denying the primary fact of life.
However, there is a precedent for seeing authentic death in documentary film. Live and Let Go: An American Death (2003) did show the assisted suicide of its terminally-ill subject and while some would describe it as horrifying, it was also real. In a similar way, the excellent Sick(1997) showed its subject, artist Bob Flanagan, die of cystic fibrosis (similar to drowning without water) while being held in his wife’s arms.
What stops films like Live and Let Go and Sickfrom being simple voyeuristic exploitation are the stories that surround their subjects. We learn the circumstances that made these people who they are and subsequently we get to know them, even come to like them. Their deaths are a natural part of that process of intimacy, and therefore we become witnesses to their now long-finished recorded deaths, emotional participants in them, and no longer simply viewers.
A Finished Life deserves much more than a standard review can give. It deserves to be watched, thought about and talked about. Death is the one ultimate, the one transcendent fact that cannot be denied, cajoled, medicated, spiritualized, bought-off or fantasized away. There is no escape, no way of looking at it, no way of explaining it that makes it any different than what it is: the end of everything. In A Finished Life Gour makes his decision for all of us to bear witness to, the responsibility is ours to not waste the opportunity to learn something from it.